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Published November 22, 2010, 01:31 PM

Roundup Ready issue may put beet industry through paces

FARGO, N.D. — If sugar beet companies are allowed to grow Roundup Ready beets in 2011, it appears the restrictions and grower oversight will be tight. One beet co-op leader says farmers may need to be using binoculars to make sure they don’t accidentally produce any seed.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — If sugar beet companies are allowed to grow Roundup Ready beets in 2011, it appears the restrictions and grower oversight will be tight. One beet co-op leader says farmers may need to be using binoculars to make sure they don’t accidentally produce any seed.

David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn., says the eight U.S. sugar beet growing cooperatives met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials Nov. 15 and 16 in Minneapolis to talk about likely requirements should Roundup Ready beets be allowed under interim conditional permits for the coming crop.

A federal court has said the U.S. Department of Agriculture improperly allowed growing Roundup Ready beet seed in previous years, and the court has ordered USDA to produce an Environmental Impact Statement about the impact of that decision. Meantime, USDA’s Agricultural Plant Health Inspection Service has proposed allowing temporary, controlled commercial planting in 2011 under a temporary plan. APHIS is collecting comments on that plan and will make a decision after Dec. 6, so the issue may be unresolved until spring.

APHIS may require that companies like Crystal and Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D., make it a contractual requirement with their growers that they heavily monitor fields of Roundup Ready beets so that no seed is accidentally produced. Sugar beets seed typically is produced in the second year of a plant’s life and is not grown in the Red River Valley. However, there are times when a single plant has genetic anomaly that allows it to “bolt” and produce a seed.

Watching your beets

“You’re going to have to pay attention to see if it’s there,” Berg says. “It’s a very rigid requirement. You must monitor the fields to make sure.”

He says that if the Roundup Ready commercial crops can be grown under a one-year exemption, until USDA completes a required environmental impact statement, the companies and farmers will bear a cost.

David Roche, president and chief executive at Minn-Dak Farmers Co-op, says a contingency draft plan would require that APHIS be notified within 48 hours of a farmer spotting a bolted plant and that the producers would monitor fields every “three or four weeks” for bolting. He says the initial draft says the monitoring should start in April, but he says the processors “politely told them bolters aren’t going to appear until the plant appears.”

“It’s going to take an incredible amount of recordkeeping at the processing at the processor level” if the Roundup Ready seed is allowed in 2011, Berg says. The process also has to be audited by a third party if it’s ultimately approved by a court.

Roche says the Minn-Dak board will have to take into account the yield difference between Roundup Ready beets and conventional.

“It’s conceivable we could have one planting level based on conventional and a planting level based on Roundup,” he says.

Berg says that may happen at Crystal, too, but that he doesn’t think the acreage difference would be great.

Meanwhile, Roche says his co-op continues to prepare for an uncertain crop in which Roundup Ready beets may not be available.

“It is currently illegal to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets, and it’s very uncertain it will become legal by planting time,” Roche says. “Minn-Dak has taken steps to afford our shareholders an ability to plant a crop whether it’s conventional or Roundup Ready.”

We can go without

Roche says that somehow the seed companies have indicated they have enough conventional seed to plant Minn-Dak’s 2011 crop, but he can’t say why they had that much seed industrywide. He says he’s concerned about the quality of the conventional seed, which may have been in storage for more than a year. Conversely, he says Minn-Dak still is “checking on” whether the conventional seed available is sufficient in the specific varieties and disease-resistance packages needed for this area.

“It’s a current, live issue, as far as seed availability,” Roche says.

Farmers typically buy seed in December and take delivery in March. Roche says the ruling makes it “illegal to engage in commerce in Roundup Ready seed,” so the company can’t position any supplies of them, even on a contingency basis.

It’s not “for certain” what the conventional seed supply levels will be sufficient, Roche says, but seed companies had “carry-over inventories of unsold seed — perhaps slow sellers” that were stored despite the oncoming popularity of Roundup Ready seeds, which have taken over more than 95 percent of the nationwide market.

The chemical side of the issue is dicey as well.

Roche acknowledges Minn-Dak is “in negotiations” with manufacturers such as Bayer CropScience and DuPont about how to assure that weed killers needed for conventional crops might be available.

“We understand that they’re available in Europe — the ‘tech material,’ the core material for making the chemicals — and there could be arrangements for it to be here in time for this crop,” Roche says.

He declines to say what the co-op would have to do, financially, to make that chemical available.

“It’s an open business issue,” he says, but acknowledges the companies aren’t likely to make the chemicals at all unless there’s a certainty it will be purchased. He says there are no contractual agreements yet between the co-op and the manufactures at this time.

Roche acknowledges that the co-op was in the same position last year, after the court’s ruling, which later was clarified to allow Roundup Ready planting in 2010. It was March until the courts finally allowed it.

“We were exposed,” he says.